In December 2020, the BBC published an extensive report about the forced manual labour of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China. Dr. Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington D.C., discovered documents revealing detention camps housing people who are allegedly forced to work in factories. Others have been forced to pick a crop which constitutes one fifth of the global cotton supply, commonly used in the fashion industry worldwide. The documents suggest that more than 500,000 minority workers are forced into the seasonal cotton picking every year in poor conditions.
Numerous organizations have denounced the Chinese government’s treatment of these minority groups, as well as criticizing the lack of a global response. The Ummah Welfare Trust describes the treatment of China’s Uighur community as “the biggest ethnic cleansing campaign since WW2,” calling the global reaction “silent.” Several human rights activists have described the treatment of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang as a “cultural genocide,” with Dr. Zenz stating that “the implications are truly on a historical scale.”
China has driven and promoted a national anti-poverty campaign for many years, however, these efforts have more recently increased. The campaign involves the relocation of poor citizens living in rural areas in order to increase their employment opportunities. President Xi Jinping has prioritized the eradication of absolute poverty as he wishes to achieve this in time for the Communist Party’s centenary in 2021. However, the evidence from Xinjiang depicts a targeted approach to the employment drives which discriminate against ethnic minorities, which has led to the Chinese government being accused of stifling any faith or culture to forcibly align citizens with the Communist Party.
In 2013, five people died in a terrorist suicide attack in Beijing, and in 2014, 35 people were killed in a terrorist attack at Kunming railway station. The Chinese government’s accusation of Uighur Islamists and separatists as having carried out both attacks represents a turning point which has instigated an organized effort to erase Islamic faith and culture. Thus, Chinese “re-education” camps were built for the purpose of ‘de-radicalizing’ citizens whom the government felt could not be trusted. Installing encrypted mobile messaging apps, searching for and viewing religious content, and having a family member living overseas all constitute suspicious behaviour according to the government.
China began building factories alongside the camps in 2018, declaring that work would change the “outdated ideas” of minority groups and turn them into “modern, secular, wage-earning Chinese citizens.”
It is not only a lacking global response to the detainment of Xinjiang’s Uighur people and other Muslim populations that has been criticized, other Muslim-majority communities have also been called upon to explain their silence. There was public outrage in the cases of Salman Rushdie and Charlie Hebdo, however, the camps in Xinjiang have not created the same reaction. In fact, in July 2019 when 22 United Nations Human Rights ambassadors from countries mainly in the West signed a letter demanding “meaningful access” for “independent international observers” in Xinjiang, a number of Muslim-majority states, including Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia helped to prevent this motion. In response, Beijing sent a letter signed by 37 ambassadors from countries such as Russia and North Korea, stating that “the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there are safeguarded,” according to the Washington Post. Among the signatories were a dozen Muslim state governments whose actions, according to the editorial board of the Washington Post, are “sanctioning one of the largest assaults on Islam in modern times.”
The proposal of the UN ambassadors to gain access to Xinjiang is weak and devalues the serious magnitude of the injustices that are taking place. It has been reported that detained Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims are forcibly taught the Chinese language in order to put a stop to the use of other languages and religious and cultural practices. Children are also taken from their parents in order to be indoctrinated and to ensure that any aspects of the Muslim faith are not passed on. Outside the camps, approximately 13 million Muslim people live under surveillance systems which use sophisticated technology to monitor their daily lives.
The fact that some Muslim-majority countries are allowing these atrocities to continue raises the question of what they might be getting in return for their silence. Countries such as Pakistan and Tajikistan are both receiving billions of dollars of profit from their investments in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is an infrastructure program aiming to increase development and investment initiatives from East Asia to Europe, strengthening the reach of China’s economic and political power. It is possible that other countries want to be involved in the future and are, therefore, supporting China in maintaining Xinjiang’s seclusion.
Some Muslim-majority countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey refused to sign the letter sent by the Chinese government, however, they also failed to sign the UN letter. This could be attributed to the United States’ refusal to publicly condemn the camps in Xinjiang, with President Donald Trump uncertain where the camps were based, and describing the suffering of the Uighur people as “tough stuff.”
The detainment of China’s Uighur people and other ethnic minorities should be addressed with urgency and force. In the letter written by the UN Human Rights Ambassadors, they stated that they “also on China to refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.” This statement carries no threat of sanctions and, therefore, applies little pressure to China to release the citizens they have detained. Governments around the world are either explicitly supporting the camps in Xinjiang, or condemning them with no tangible consequences and no concrete threat. This has left many people feeling unable to gain the Chinese government’s attention and bring about real change.
Amnesty International is promoting a scheme in which people express their outrage to the Chinese government via email. This movement shows that the world has not forgotten about those who have been detained and that the Communist Party must be held accountable for their actions.
The countries in opposition to the Chinese camps could form an international coalition to place both economic and diplomatic pressure on China. This coalition could be spearheaded by the United Kingdom or the United States in order to give other countries the political backing to confidently confront the Chinese government. This international coalition might also persuade the Muslim-majority countries who did not sign China’s letter to join and express their outrage for China’s treatment of the Uighur people and other minority groups. The coalition would also present more of a tangible threat with the imposing of sanctions to restrict the trade of Chinese products made by forced labour.
Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), a House Armed Services Committee member and a leader of the foreign policy movement in the U.S. Congress, has suggested that the United States could request that Customs and Border Protection agency bans imported products from regions known to use forced labour. The New York Times has reported that approximately one in five items of cotton clothing contain cotton or other materials directly from Xinjiang, as it produces roughly 84% of China’s entire cotton production. An international boycott of these products would majorly reduce revenues and force the government to rethink their labour trade. Without tangible consequences and economic pressure, China will continue to garner the support of other countries, including some Muslim-majority nations, through future economic incentives. Individuals can boycott Chinese goods from Xinjiang, however, this protest also needs to happen at national levels with real consequences in order to hold the Chinese government to account for the atrocities it has committed and will continue to commit against its minority populations.
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